The Greatest R&B Singer Who Never Existed

How the make-believe alter ego of an imaginative teen in the 1970s won him the fame he always dreamed of 40 years later

Now in the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s collections: the tape recorded songs and a curious cache of hand-made imitation record albums of a make-believe R&B artist, known as Mingering Mike.

The collection was discovered nine years ago when Dori Hadar, a record digger who owned more than 10,000 records at the time, found a stack of the faux albums early one morning in a Washington, DC flea market. Hadar is a criminal investigator for a Maryland law firm, and he sometimes worked night hours at DC’s Central Detention Facility. The flea market was across the street. He finished particularly late that night, so he showed up in the pre-dawn hours as the market was being setup to rummage through its offerings.

From 1968 to 1977, Mingering Mike and his crew made more than 80 records and performed in sold-out venues around the world. Not bad for a made-up superstar. All photos courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

On this morning, Hadar leafed through one vendor’s record boxes and came across a set of 38 album covers that appeared to be hand-made. The records’ titles spanned an entire career of an artist he’d never heard of, complete with solo albums, greatest hits collections, movie soundtracks, even a sickle cell anemia benefit concert. Most were “produced, written, arranged and performed” by Mingering Mike. After Hadar puzzled over the sketches of an afro-sporting soul singer performing to sold-out crowds and the blocks of song lyrics that blanketed the albums’ jackets, he pulled out a few of the records inside, only to realize that they were were not vinyl but black-painted cardboard disks—completely fake, but with labels and even etched-in grooves.

“I was flabbergasted. I really didn’t know what to make of them,” Hadar says. He bought the entire collection.

At home, he posted pictures of the albums on the vinyl record collector site Soul Strut and asked “Who is Mingering Mike?” The discovery, in his words, “totally blew up.” Soul Strut’s traffic went through the roof as record enthusiasts speculated about the origins of the mysterious creations. New York Times, Washington Post, and ­Spin ran pieces on the discovery. Mike’s albums carried a signature style—figures are colored with markers, words are disproportionate and off-center—but the collection, created between 1968 and 1977, captures a volatile decade in America’s history with arresting insight and imagination. Alongside love albums and songs for Kung Fu films are album covers about protests, racial equality, drugs and the Vietnam War. The albums’ new-found online fans called the creations “outsider art” and “folk art.” Hadar didn’t know what to call them, but he knew he had to find Mingering Mike.

A week later, after tracking Mike down through a few personal letters that he found with the albums, Hadar grabbed a bite with the self-made artist at a local Denny’s. Mike, who is fiercely private—he asks that his last name not be published—was thrilled to learn that Hadar had the albums. They had been left in a storage unit, but when Mike missed a payment, the contents were auctioned off.

He never expected to see his art again.

Mike’s idea for his world-famous alter ego began in his late teens. The introverted artist started sketching album designs and writing songs about love and heartache in his free time. During the Vietnam War, and as his creativity grew, Mike changed his focus to the social issues he saw affecting people around the city. His art became a means of processing tumultuous times, an outlet for his moral and political views. “Anyone who is aware of their surroundings and what is going on, they might do different things like study to be a social worker, or a doctor, or a lawyer, or a policeman, or a fireman, something to help out the community,” Mike says. “Me, I didn’t have a voice in the outside world, so I figured I’d make a voice for myself.”

Besides a few shows at a mental hospital, Mike never performed any music live. He did sing, though, and claims to have written more than 4,000 actual songs, many of which he recorded a cappella on tape (listen to some here). “There’s something so honest about his work, and personal. It’s really touching,” Hadar says. “He has different personas on the albums, but what he’s expressing is what he truly feels. Even though his ultimate dream was to be this soul super star, he knew that wasn’t going to happen. It really is like reading a diary.”

Mike’s work arrived at the American Art Museum via Mike Wilkins, a collector who purchased the full body of work for donation. Shortly after Hadar discovered Mingering Mike, he returned to the flea market with fellow record aficionado Frank Beylotte to unearth more of Mike’s creations, and Mike’s cousin later added even more albums, so the full collection now consists of more than 80 LPs and 45s, 65 unused record labels and hours of recorded audiotape.

“These albums reach people in a way that’s powerful and direct, and makes them feel like anybody can do something meaningful and play a role in history,” says the museum’s Leslie Umberger, who will curate an exhibit on Mingering Mike in 2015. “I think this kind of work has a great democratic spirit. It makes people feel like they’re part of it instead of just observers.”

In 2007, Hadar wrote a book on the discovery, and he and Mike have toured internationally telling the Mingering Mike story. Mike, who invented his stage name by jumbling the sound of “merging” when he read it on a road sign, still can’t believe his fame. “Did I think my voice would ever be heard? Never in a million years,” he says.

UPDATE 3/5/2013: This post was updated to include more details on how the record albums were found.

Get the latest on what's happening At the Smithsonian in your inbox.